Nasa is going on an asteroid rodeo. In plans that sound like science fiction but that are aimed at becoming science fact, the US spaceagency has revealed its ambitions to lasso an asteroid and drag it back to the Earth. Nasa scientists are engaged on a hunt for a suitable space rock that can be the target of the mission, which has been scheduled tentatively for 2019.
“It really is a clever concept. Go find your ideal candidate for an asteroid. Go get it robotically and bring it back,” said Florida senator Bill Nelson as he unveiled the plans at a press conference.
Nelson, who is chairman of the Senate science and space subcommittee, said President Barack Obama would put $100m aside for the mission in next week’s budget for 2014. The cash will be used to find a suitable small asteroid – currently expected to be around 25ft and weight 500 tons. As it stands, the mission would use a robotically-controlled spacecraft to approach the asteroid, attach a large version of a “baggie with a draw string”, and then drag the captured rock back to near Earth.
Once the asteroid arrives it will be easier to send up astronauts to examine it close-up. The aim of the mission would be to explore the idea that eventually asteroids could be mined for resources; the sample would also likely provide clues about the sort of material that made up the early solar system.
Last year, the Keck Institute for Space Studies proposed a similar mission for Nasa with a price tag of $2.6bn. There is no cost estimate for the space agency’s version. Nasa’s plans were first reported by Aviation Week.
Of course, such a scheme does sound a little like the plot of a Hollywood disaster movie, in which an errant space mission could lose control of the asteroid and accidentally send it hurtling towards Earth. Such thoughts are high on the agenda of many scientists who have recently seen a dramatic meteor burn through the skies above Russia with enough force to shatter windows and injure hundreds of people.